The American artist Marsden Hartley was born in Lewiston, Maine in 1877. He died in Ellsworth, Maine, in 1943. The intervening sixty-six years were characterized by countless travels in North America and Europe. Constantly moving, experimenting with style changes and in search new stimulations in his art, Hartley never occupied the same rooms for more than ten months as an adult.
Hartley grew up in a lower working-class home in a small factory town, the youngest of nine children. His given name was Edmond. Of the nine children, only five survived childhood. At the age of eight, following his mother's death and his father’s remarriage to Martha Marsden (whose maiden name he would later adopt), Hartley was sent to live with his sister in Augusta, Maine. Compelled to contribute to his sister's family income, he left school at fifteen to work and soon moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he began painting lessons in 1896. Demonstrating innate talent, he was awarded a scholarship to the Cleveland School of Art and in 1899 earned a five-year stipend to study at the William Merritt chase New York School of Art.
His recollections of Cleveland School of Art focused on Nina Waldeck, a drawing teacher who became his first spiritual mentor. She gave Hartley a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essays,which he carried with him for years and later called 'the greatest book of his life'. Emerson's endorsement of inspiration over reason, as well as his intuitional orientation, had a profound effect on Hartley's thinking, providing the artist with the foundation for his spiritual attitudes. Following Emerson's instruction to return to nature, he spend the winter of 1908-1909 in the wilds of Maine. There he made his first major break from convention, developing his Neo-Impressionist style inspired by the artist Albert Pinkham Ryder.
He met Alfred Stieglitz, who agreed to hold an exhibition at 291 Fifth Avenue Gallery. His first solo exhibition failed financially, but it introduced Hartley to a cosmopolitan society for the first time in his life. Though Ryder's allegorical landscapes sustained him for a time, Hartley sought more radical inspiration. He told Stieglitz, 'I want my own sight'. Having decided this, it was only a matter of time before he reached his new destination.
Hartley believed seeing the new styles of painting first-hand in Paris would inspire him to express something all of his own. In 1912 he visited Paris. He was greatly impressed by the public demonstrations at the Salon des Indépendants to the intimate gatherings at the apartment of Gertrude Stein. Despite the lure of Parisian society, Hartley formed his closest friendships with the German artists that gathered at Restaurant Thomas on the Boulevard Raspail. The works he made that summer were in the style of the French artists in Stein's circle. They evolved from a Cézannesque style towards the palette and decorative emphasis of Matisse. When the summer ended he moved to a more abstract Cubist style. However, the mystical leanings of his German group of friends eventually began to dominate the intellectualism of the French. He was also introduced to Wassily Kandinsky's work and his ideas about abstraction in Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Hartley told Stieglitz that Kandinsky's book led him to begin his own series of abstractions demonstration 'cosmic consciousness'.
In the fall of 1913, Hartley moved to Berlin. The Berlin paintings differ in both form and content from his earlier intuitive abstractions, they are infused with the spirit of Hartley's Germany. His intention was to express a fresh consciousness of what he saw and felt around him – ‘taken directly out of life and from no theories and formulas as prevails so much today.' In the following years he lived mostly in Germany and his pictures generated an increasingly enthusiastic response there. But Hartley was still restless: ‘I could never be French - I could never become German - I shall always remain American - the essence which is in me is American mysticism just as Davies declared it when he saw those first landscapes.’
He was forced to leave Europe during wartime in December 1915. In the following years he travelled between New York, Bermuda, Taos and California. In 1918 he settled in Santa Fe. He told Stieglitz, 'I shall go on copying nature indefinitely.' He spoke of returning to the wealth of color of the American landscape, of the rich red earth, of chocolate mesas and wide areas of blue sky. With that in mind, Hartley went on to spend the 1920's traveling Europe while painting recollections of New Mexico.
Between 1932 and 1937 Hartley lived and worked in Mexico, Bavaria, Bermuda and finally moved to Nova Scotia. There he suffered a personal loss when a hurricane killed two sons and a cousin of a befriended family. The tragedy weighed heavily on the artist's mind and imagination for the remainder of his life. It led him to take on a new subject. From 1936 to 1943 he made a series of seascapes, serving as a memento mori. The paintings portray the violence and the lonely force of the sea in which Ryder's vision is again a clear influence, in that way turning back to his roots. As his earlier Ryderesque series these paintings explore the relationship between nature and mankind. But as opposed to the more passive landscapes of his youthful works, these seascapes invoke an ominous threat of a crushing sea. From this point on, Hartley worked continuously. As Stieglitz exclaimed to Dove at Hartley's death, 'what a lucky man Hartley, to have passed out in his zenith!’